Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: In Search of the Human Soul

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Written and Directed By: Werner Herzog
Director of Photography: Peter Zeitlinger, Editors: Joe Bini and Maya Hawke, Original Music: Ernst Reijseger
Rated: G

            In a recent interview, director Werner Herzog discussed that he could rename every one of his films with the title Starring into the Abyss. It makes sense for a director who has often explored the edges of the world, both physically and psychologically. In the director’s latest documentary, the abyss he takes us to is not one of extreme landscape or even madness, but instead the birth of the human soul, as he describes it.

            Shooting in 3D in caves never before seen by most humans, Mr. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us to a series of limestone caves in Southern France containing paintings that may be over 32,000 years old, dating them as the oldest in the world. Such material might be more fit for a documentary on the Discovery channel, but Mr. Herzog uses the paintings as a chance to explore the meaning of humanity and the soul in a perceptive way that others wouldn’t dare. Plus, he really likes cave paintings.

            A good majority of the documentary takes place as Mr. Herzog and his crew dive into the limestone caves, carefully navigating along the area to capture the unique formations of buffalo, people, and other creatures. The scientists and excavators that run the cave have refused to allow the public to explore it, making Mr. Herzog’s capture an almost exclusive experience, as he carefully describes the dificult process of shooting in the area.

            But more than a historical lesson, Mr. Herzog riffs as he does in all of his non-narrative features in a voiceover that borders on self-parody. The questions he asks are not those of a man interested in the truth of the nature, but of some unattainable power of which he cannot reach. In one poignant scene, Mr. Herzog stares at a set of footprints left by a young boy and those of a wolf. He asks whether the wolf tracked the boy, they walked side by side, or perhaps the tracks were left centuries apart.

            What Cave of Forgotten Dreams misses though is a central character to gravitate toward. The best of the filmmaker’s documentaries, as well as narrative features, have contained unforgettable characters, such as Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man or the deranged penguin in Encounters at the End of the World. Unless you really love cave paintings as much as Mr. Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams feels like an empty history lesson. Mr. Herzog is much more content in simply showing image after image of the cave with Gregorian chant playing that exploring the actual history, and his own puzzling and rhetorical questions can't really make up for the mostly boring characters that he gravitates toward. Perhaps the most fascinating moment has nothing to do with the caves, but an aquarium near the caves where nuclear radiation has caused a species of crocodiles to become albino.

            Most perplexing of all is Mr. Herzog’s choice to film in 3D, an effect that he hopes will bring depth to the paintings in a way the 2D cinematic form cannot capture. It is recognizable and provides some life to the otherwise very dead paintings, but it is only a subtle effect that is hard to notice, save for a scene of an anthropologist throwing a spear toward the camera in a demonstration of ancient weapons.

            Cave paintings may be the point in time in which humans truly came alive and more than animals, and Mr. Herzog's fascination with them fits perfectly in his universe. Unfortunately, it is difficult to translate such enthusiasm toward something with such deadening presence on screen, and something so un-cinematic. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fascinating look at one man’s interest in a world undiscovered, but your own fervor may depend on how much your interests align with the director.

The Arbor: A Place of Pain, Heard but Not Seen

The Arbor
Directed By: Clio Barnard
Featuring: Andrea Dunbar, Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley
Director of Photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland, Editors: Nick Fenton and Daniel Goddard, Production Designer: Matthew Button, Original Music: Harry Escott and Molly Nyman
Rated: Not Rated, but violent language and a lot of talk of life at its most horrifying.

            The old adage about writing is “write what you know.” Many people take this too much to heart, and thus the number of novels, plays, and films about 20-somethings trying to write have becomes more than a cliché but instead a nuisance. But Andrea Dunbar never had that problem, and her play, The Arbor, is instead a perilously disturbing drama about growing up in a slum in Yorkshire.

            But director Clio Barnard’s film The Arbor is not an adaptation of Ms. Dunbar’s groundbreaking play, but a documentary of some sorts, and an exploration of the life around that area. Part documentary, part feature film, and all fascinating, The Arbor explores the life of Ms. Dunbar and her children, in particular one whose path recreated the mistakes of her mother.

The Robber: High-Cost Adrenaline Rush

The Robber
Directed By: Benjamin Heisenberg
Written By: Benjamin Heisenberg and Martin Prinz, based on the novel by Prinz
Starring: Andreas Lust and Franziska Weisz
Director of Photography: Reinhold Vorschnieder, Editor: Benjamin Heisenberg and Andrea Wagner, Production Designer: Renate Schmaderer, Original Music: Lorenz Dangel
Rated: Not Rated, but some violence, sex, and running.

     The pounding noises of base give volume to the close tracking shots in The Robber, as we watch our protagonist Johann Rettenberger, run at his fast pace. In many ways, his running becomes a metaphor for the film. Each step is a beat, one foot closer to the end, and the scenery around him is changing, though the character stays the same. And Johann’s life story is certainly worth a cinematic experience, but possibly not in the construction that written-director Benjamin Heisenberg has constructed.

            Noticed that while I described running in that opening, the film is in fact titled The Robber, which is the other profession that Johann can’t resist. And thus is the premise for the true story that follows in the film—a man who’s addicted to speed, and addicted to stealing. Mr. Heisenberg obviously has a great hook for a genre piece, but he also decides to use it as somewhat of a deconstruction of the genre. And in doing so, he parses the elements a little too much, like a similar European film, Anton Corbjin’s The American, to the point where besides the act of watching the character go through the motions, there’s not much to chew on.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Incendies: Tragedy in the Middle East, Again

Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Written By: Denis Villeneuve, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad
Starring: Lubna Azbal, Melissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Remy Girad
Directory of Photography: Andre Turpin, Editor: Monique Dartonne, Production Designer: Andre-Line Beauparlant, Original Music: Gregorie Hertzel
Rated: R for language and a lot of graphic violence.

            Incendies, a French word that translated to “scorched,” opens with a set of young boys having their heads shaved, beginning training as child soldiers. We’re in an unnamed country, though writer-director Denis Villeneuve makes enough allusions to make it Lebanon, and one of the children stares at us as the camera moves closer to him. It’s an inciting incident for the film, a brutal sting that demands us to not look away at any brutality, and for a film that is an assault in terms of its atrocities, and the film’s questionable intelligence, perfectly sums up its difficult nature.

            Incendies already has its defenders—the Canadian film was one of the five nominated for a foreign language Oscar earlier this year—but its overwrought melodrama and lack of true political sensitivity approach laughable proportions. The performers are genuine, and Mr. Villeneuve certainly has good intentions, but the film lacks the subtlety to really question the actions it makes, and its lack of context, an attempt to make the narrative more universal, hinders its chance to make a meaningful statement.

Dog Day Afternoon: Hot Day with Some Hot Temperaments

After a long career in movies, the great director Sidney Lumet passed away on April 9th this year. A director of a unique filmmaker that combined documentary style with a true understanding of the power of the script and performers, Mr. Lumet made a number of masterpieces, including 12 Angry Men, Network, and The Verdict. This reprint of an essay I wrote in 2009 revisits perhaps the best film Mr. Lumet directed, Dog Day Afternoon.

I recently sat down with one of my very good friends to rewatch Dog Day Afternoon, the 1975 thriller about a Brooklyn bank heist gone wrong starring Al Pacino and directed by Sidney Lumet. I had chose the film because my friend often remarks that his favorite film is Spike Lee’s 2006 bank thriller Inside Man, which has many homages to Dog Day Afternoon. But as I watched the film again, something struck me that the films had more than a ban heist at their core—both films are about the control and taking of power. Who has power? How does power switch? What are the tools of power?

Dog Day Afternoon is truly one of the greatest films to come out of the 1970s. With its authentic Brooklyn location and utter intensity, not a single false moment rings through the film. The film opens with a montage of shots of Brooklyn in all its detestable glory. The town is dirty—dogs roam the street, trash is everywhere. Also look at how Lumet chooses the shoot these scenes—he gives us a horizontal New York. Think about the opening shots of Robert Wise’s West Side Story—those high vertical shots that give such a structure of power. Lumet puts us right into the action, the real New York where people actually have to live and work.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Meek's Cutoff: Off the Oregon Trail, More Problems Than Dysentery

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed By: Kelly Reichardt
Written By: Jon Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Will Patton, and Rod Rondeaux
Director of Photography: Christopher Blauvelt, Editor: Kelly Reichardt, Production Designer: David Doernberg, Original Score: Jeff Grace

            The first thing that seems odd when watching the latest film from Wendy & Lucy director Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff, is that she has shot the film in the classic Academy Ratio of 1.34:1, meaning it’s shaped like a box. Some modern films—including Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank—have done this approach, but Ms. Reichardt is also making a Western on the dry, barren landscapes of 1845 Oregon, meaning she is denying us access to these wide open spaces that surround her characters. And yet, Meek’s Cutoff is not a Western about the miles of open land—it’s instead claustrophobic, as we see the world and perhaps livelihood of our characters falling apart and squeezing in on them. There is a certain fear that pervades the entire film, and it comes from this often-devastating visual technique.

            Yet why make a claustrophobic allegorical Western? That’s the problem that Meek’s Cutoff will have on its viewers the first time around. The astute work of Ms. Reichardt is on display, but the film is difficult to swallow in a way very different from Wendy & Lucy, which was a much more emotional journey, thanks to the performance of Michelle Williams. Ms. Williams is back here, but she’s only part of a group of pioneers, lost along the Oregon trail, none of whom standout, except for a bearded Bruce Greenwood as the titular Meek.

Hanna: Little Killer in the Big World

Directed By: Joe Wright
Written By: Seth Lochhead and David Farr, Story by Seth Lochhead
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana, Jessica Barden, and Olivia Williams
Director of Photography: Alwin H. Kuckler, Editor: Paul Tothill, Production Designer: Sarah Greenwood, Original Music: The Chemical Brothers
Rated: PG-13 for some intense in-your-face violence, a little language and a suggestion of sex

            Watching Hanna I realized how much two of director Joe Wright’s previous films now felt anarchronistic to his taste. While his adaptations of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice and Ian McEwan’s Atonement were reserved and flowing with the veins of their literary authors, his latest film, the action thriller Hanna, couldn’t be more radical in style. It comes as a surprise that neither of those two films featured rapid editing, pounding techno scores, or sheer intensity (Atonement did have a 7 minute tracking shot on the shores of Dunkirk, a show stopping moment in the often restrained film).

            So why hasn’t Mr. Wright done an action film before, as Hanna proves he is certain capable, if not extremely unique as an in-your-face director that doesn’t just shove you into the story, but throws you face first into the mud. A twisted coming-of-age tale mixed with a Jason Bounre-like narrative, Hanna is an intense if silly action ride, but kept together by its lead performer, the loveable Saoirse Ronan.

Your Highness: Merrily We Roll Along, Toking Up On Our Way

Your Highness
Directed By: David Gordon Green
Written By: Danny McBride and Ben Best
Starring: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Rasmus Hardiker, and Toby Jones.
Director of Photography: Tim Orr, Editor: Craig Alpert, Production Designer: Mark Tildesley, Original Music: Steve Jarblonsky
Rated: R for plenty of foul language, violence galore, and some titillating imagery.

            There is a certain rift within the new comedy Your Highness. On one side, the film is clearly indebted to Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, as well as all other medieval myths that came before it. But it’s also a stoner comedy, filled with dick jokes, swearing, and everything else that a dirty mind can conjure up. It’s no surprise then Your Highness is the work of Danny McBride, the writer and actor from HBO’s Eastbound and Down, as well as Pineapple Express. Mr. McBride, uniting once again with director David Gordon Green, seems fit on making another dumb action comedy, but using its setting to create a self-conscious irony.

            Which is what makes Your Highness so stupid, but so fun nonetheless. Medieval films, and especially recent Television shows like Game of Thrones and The Borgias, are so serious, and held down by their self-importance. Mr. Green might have started with independent masterpieces like George Washington and All the Real Girls, but now he’s become a downright irreverent filmmaker, albeit still a good one with a stoner-set mind (Mr. Green last directed Pineapple Express). So the best jokes that emerge in Your Highness are of course those that hold such irreverence, for the language, the mythology, or simply the absurdity of it all.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Source Code Spoiler Q&A: Man Off the Moon

With only two films, director Duncan Jones has become a favorite in sci-fi geekdom. His first film, Moon, followed Sam Rockwell on a base on the Moon as he discovers a copy of himself. Now adapting another writer’s work, Souce Code follows the story of a soldier who must repeatedly assume the identity of a man on a train during the last eight minutes of his life while searching for the train’s bomber. Duncan Jones sat down last week for a discussion of the production and the logic behind the film. READER BEWARE: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS AND IS MEANT FOR READING AFTER SEEING THE FILM.

How did this project come about? After Moon it had been announced you were working on a film called Mute.

I actually tried to make Mute before Moon, and it was definitely too ambitious for a first feature film. It was definitely the right call to do Moon first. But I did have these aspirations to make Mute next, and that was one of the reasons I was able to meet up with Jake Gyllenhaal. He had seen Moon and seemed to very much like it. And I’m a huge admirer of his and really wanted to work with him. We met up to discuss what I hoped was going to be Mute. But he said, “I have this great script for you. You got to read it.” And he gave me Source Code. I went home and I read it, and I thought, I think there’s something I can do in this. I loved the pace of it. I was really interested in the science fiction conceit at the heart of it. And it seemed to do so many things. There was a romance to it; there was the opportunity to put some humor to it. In my mind, it was so different from Moon, but after the fact, I realized it’s not that different, especially with the act of being in a heavily confined space.

Could you talk about your interest in science fiction as a genre and maybe what some of your influences were?

I definitely consider myself a science fiction fan. My dad [ed. Note: Mr. Jones’ father is the rock star David Bowie] always liked me to read every evening for an hour or two a night growing up. If I was finding it difficult and hard at the time, science fiction became my favorite, and I was always reading one to another. So whether it was George Orwell’s Animal Farm, or John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffirds, or the major works of Phillip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard—those were the things I really enjoyed. That’s what started my science fiction interest. I love to take the opportunity to look at “What if” stories. Even like J. G. Ballard and look at the world very much how it is, but just tweak one thing. What is the world like this? And it just gives you a whole new perspective.

Source Code: Stranger on a Train, Over and Over Again

Source Code
Directed By: Duncan Jones
Written By: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffery Wright
Director of Photography: Don Burgess, Editor: Paul Hirsch, Production Designer: Barry Chusid, Original Music: Christ Bacon
Rated: PG-13 for some violence, some language, and a particularly disturbing image.

            Source Code’s opening titles set the tone for a film about serious implications prestened with a certain lightness to it. A science fiction thriller with a complex and eventually disturbing conceit, director Duncan Jones moves his narrative along with a hop and a skip to its rhythm. In these opening titles, Mr. Jones uses dramatic angles from overhead to give us a glimpse of Chicago, as well as the train where most of the film takes place. Using dynamic angles, as well as a score by Chris Bacon that recalls the work of Bernard Hermann, Mr. Jones is clearly bringing us into a Hitchcockian puzzle, with all the fun that comes with it.

            This may come as a surprise to fans of Mr. Jones’ previous film, the enigmatic and quiet Moon, which starred two Sam Rockwells and the voice of Kevin Spacey, isolated on the titular satellite. But the DNA of Mr. Jones’ work is highly apparent in Source Code, even if the script comes from writer Ben Ripley. With its logical obsession, constant twists, and surprising dedication to its characters, Source Code is a fun little film with some big explosions.